The history of Moyenne Island, which is an archipelago of 115 islands that make up the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean, reads like an environmentalist’s dream. It’s refreshing story in a world that’s grappling with climate change and environmental exploitation for human growth and profit. It serves as an example of what can be achieved if the people involved have vision, dedication and a sense of service beyond their individual gain. Brendon Grimshaw is an example of just such a person.
Grimshaw first came to the Seychelles on holiday in 1962. At the time, he was an editor working for some of the biggest newspapers in East Africa. It was an exciting time with many new countries claiming independence from their colonial masters.
Tanzania had declared independence the year before; Kenya would follow a year later; and Grimshaw, an Englishman, understood that jobs such as his would soon pass to locals. Knowing that he would soon be unemployed, Grimshaw searched for a new direction in his life, one that took him closer to nature. He dreamed of owning land in the Seychelles. Ideally, he’d buy his own island.
After a few weeks of looking around, Grimshaw began to wonder if he needed a change of plan: there weren’t many islands on the market, and those that were had eye-watering price tags. On the second-to-last day of his holiday, a young man approached him in the Seychelles’ capital, Victoria, and asked him if he wanted to buy an island. Just like that.
They travelled together to Moyenne Island, a 0.099 sq. km. dot 4.5km off the north coast of the Seychelles’ largest island, Mahé. Grimshaw immediately fell in love with its silence, and its wild tangle of vegetation. It was, he would later say, close enough to be accessible from the Seychelles’ main island, and yet a world away.
At four minutes to midnight on the last day of his holiday, Grimshaw signed an agreement to pay £8,000 for Moyenne Island. The island was his, but buying Moyenne would prove a far easier task than taking care of it. Apart from a family of fisherfolk who lived there, Moyenne Island had been abandoned for decades.
Moyenne Island is one of the smallest of the Seychelles’ inner islands: it measures just 0.4km long and barely 0.3km wide, and its coastline runs for less than 2km. Its highest point rises to an altitude of just 61m above the water’s edge. Moyenne Island possesses the same gleaming white sand beaches and granite boulders that characterize so many Seychelles shorelines, but it’s also home to a dense, unbroken wall of trees that cover the island. It’s a riot of green against cobalt skies and a sapphire sea, like a tiny rainforest erupting from the ocean. A definite paradise.
Grimshaw set about restoring the island’s natural beauty. A combination of neglect and heavy-handed human intervention had left Moyenne Island dishevelled and gasping for air. The island was so overgrown that, it was said, falling coconuts never hit the ground. In the tangle of weeds, birds were noticeably absent, and rats foraged in the undergrowth. The restoration became Grimshaw’s life-long obsession. “His vision was to leave an unspoiled island for future generations of Seychellois and the world,” said Suketu Patel, who first met Grimshaw in 1976, and became a lifelong friend.
As tourism in the Seychelles grew in the 1980s, and the archipelago became synonymous with a tropical island paradise, investors turned their covetous gaze towards Moyenne Island. Grimshaw received offers of up to $50 million to sell the island. He resisted every overture.
As he grew older, he became increasingly aware that he had limited time left to protect the island’s future. He decided to act. With Patel and others, he set up a perpetual trust to protect the island, and signed an 2009 agreement with the Seychelles’ Ministry of Environment to include Moyenne Island as part of Ste. Anne Marine Park, but granted it its own special status. Moyenne Island National Park, the world’s smallest national park, was born.
It’s easy to imagine Grimshaw as an eccentric figure, but many Seychellois remain grateful for what he bequeathed to his adopted nation, and his actions set a precedent that deserves wide publicity. We need many more Grimshaws.
Grimshaw died in 2012, and his grave sits alongside that of his father (who came to live with him) and two unknown pirates, whose graves Grimshaw discovered early on in his explorations. In his last will and testament, he expressed his final wishes that Moyenne Island is to be maintained as a venue for prayer, peace, tranquility, relaxation and knowledge for Seychellois and visitors from overseas of all nationalities, colours and creeds.
The task of fulfilling Grimshaw’s wishes now lies in the hands of the Moyenne Island Foundation, which is overseen by Patel. Apart from a restaurant – the Jolly Roger – that serves local dishes like grilled fish and seafood curries in a red Creole sauce, a small museum dedicated to Grimshaw’s life and two nurseries for giant tortoise hatchlings, Moyenne Island remains undeveloped.
The island has no jetty and arriving here carries a special kind of magic: nowhere else in the Seychelles can match Moyenne Island sense of deserted-island discovery as you wade ashore, barefoot, through the shallows. As you reach dry land and take your first steps along the gently climbing forest trail, the trees close in behind you and you enter another world. Dappled sunlight filters down through the canopy to the forest floor, the temperature is cooler, and the island’s 16,000 trees – mahogany, palm, mango, pawpaw, planted by Grimshaw, surround you. Every now and then, you may find your path blocked by one of Moyenne Island nearly 50 free-range giant Aldabra tortoises. They’re in no hurry, and nor should you be as you watch them pass. Back in the shallows and by the beaches at Pirate’s Cove, watch for hawksbill turtles that often come ashore to nest.
Grimshaw left a beautiful island and, also, a beautiful legacy and example.